John Gray has been named director of the Smithsonian's National Museum… (Richard Strauss, Associated…)
John Gray, who rode off into retirement about 16 months ago after 11 years as president of the Autry National Center of the American West, is making an unexpected return astride one of the world's most-visited cultural institutions: He's been named director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History inWashington, D.C.
"His passion for American history and scholarship is obvious, and it's what will make him a great leader for our American History Museum," Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough said Tuesday in a written announcement of Gray's selection. Gray will assume the job July 23, a few weeks after he turns 64.
Over the phone Tuesday from Washington, Gray said he'd been happy fulfilling his long-held dream of living the rustic life in northern New Mexico. He'd settled in Dixon, and was pursuing a master's degree in Eastern classics — the literature and philosophy of ancient China and India — at St. John's College in Santa Fe.
Then he got a call last fall from a search firm, asking if he'd like to be considered as head of the National Museum of American History. It's the Smithsonian's third-leading attraction, with 4.6 million visitors in 2011 (the National Air and Space Museum led with 8.2 million visitors in two locations, and the National Museum of Natural History drew 6.6 million).
"It took me a couple of months," Gray said, before he decided that he couldn't pass up a chance to lead an institution that's "at the center of how we think about American history."
Gray succeeds Brent Glass, who retired last August. Besides overseeing a collection of more than 3 million objects, including the original 1814 battle flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," his responsibilities will include overseeing renovations of the museum's 120,000-square-foot west wing, where activities have shut down in preparation for construction work.
Gray said a big part of his job will be raising money toward the project, which he said is expected to cost $85 million to $110 million, as well as funds toward the museum's regular operating budget of $34 million.
Overall, the Smithsonian Institution receives about $800 million a year in federal funding, but increasingly it has turned to private donors to carry out its missions of exhibitions and research. Admission to its Washington museums is free.
Gray chuckled at first at the suggestion that he'll now have a chance to achieve on the National Mall what he wasn't able to do in L.A.'s Griffith Park. His Autry tenure ended in a degree of frustration after city officials shot down a major renovation and expansion plan Gray had shepherded. The Autry withdrew its $175-million proposal in 2009, after the City Council had demanded legally binding assurance that it would also reinvigorate the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington. The Southwest had come under the Autry's control in a 2002 merger, adding a prized collection of Native American artifacts to the Autry's previously cowboy-centric holdings.
"The most important thing that came out of the merger was saving the Southwest Museum's collection," Gray said. "It's hugely important for Los Angeles to have the dominant museum of the American West."
Gray has been credited with overseeing the Autry's maturation from a narrowly focused museum built around the collection of its founder, movie star Gene Autry, into a broader institution whose exhibitions and scholarship address the full range of Western history and culture, including attention to the West's ethnic diversity.
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